FORMER Welsh rugby player Alix Popham looks back on his career after rising from Newport High School Old Boys youth ranks up to club rugby, winning domestic cups in Wales and England, and becoming a Six Nations Grand Slam winner after beating England at Twickenham for the first time in 22 years.

I was born in the Royal Gwent Hospital and grew up in Rhiwderin. I went to Pentrepoeth Primary School and Cross Keys College, and played for Newport High School Old Boys from when I was four in minis up until juniors. I enjoyed rugby from a young age and we were a very successful mini and junior team. Being selected for all age group levels meant rugby was always a part of my life.

I remember one of the highlights of that time was playing for East Wales against West Wales under 11’s. We played at the old Cardiff Arms Park and it was a great honour. It was something that you wanted to do again and again, and made you want to become the best you could be. I was with a few of my mates at the time and wanted to enjoy it as much as I could.

It was after going through the Welsh youth under 18s and under 19s that I was offered my first contract by Newport RFC. It wasn’t full time but it allowed me to get a car so I could go back and forth to training whilst I was in college and university.

I did a B-Tec in sports science in Cross Keys College and I started an IT and sports degree at the University of South Wales in Newport, but it was quite a full on course and I wasn’t able to train in the days so it wasn’t possible to finish it.

The first season for Newport was very difficult as I was only 18 and still learning from youth level. I think we only won a handful of games in that season, but then Tony Brown came in and invested in some world class players and we ended up winning the cup and pushing higher up the league.

I was playing with the likes of Gary Teichmann and Shane Howarth, and when you have great players like that you learn from them. I had four seasons at Newport and from there I went to Leeds Tykes, and spent four years there in the English premiership.

I knew Phil Davies, who used to be a second row at Llanelli, who was coaching at the club and he asked if I wanted to join him. I said yes as it was something that gave me regular rugby, as at Newport I was starting on the bench and as a 20 to 21-year-old I wanted to be playing week-in week-out.

It was much more intense there as there was so much riding on each game with relegation from the league always a threat. In my time there we won the Powergen Cup, but we were never a team that could guarantee a win each game. It was always very close and we had to fight it out, and I think that’s down to the relegation part of it as teams never give up and fight for every single point in every single game. The pitches we were playing on were also top quality, which was not always the case in Wales.

One of the highlights was surviving every year and not being relegated. In the last year we were right at the bottom of the league and to stay up it was mathematically possible if we won our last six games, and in between that we had a semi final and a final of a cup competition. We won all the games and not only survived relegation, avoiding it on the last day of the season as Harlequins went down, but also won the cup.

I went to the Scarlets next, as we had a baby girl and I wanted to be closer to friends and family. It was different as I was going to a club that were a lot more successful, and Wales now had regions instead of clubs too. We had a lot of players trying to prove themselves and that spurred us all on. I signed a two year contract but after the first six months things had gone so well they offered me a new three year contract. During my time there I built up a great relationship with Gareth Jenkins, Nigel Davies and Paul Moriarty.

I was playing very well down there and was in a great squad. It was a great three years for me, especially getting to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup after beating Toulouse away from home.

It was during this time that we beat England at Twickenham for the first time in 22 years before we went on to win the Six Nations Grand Slam. It was simply amazing. It was great to make a little bit of history and get the ball rolling for the remainder of the tournament. The Grand Slam at the end was a great achievement. That’s what it’s all about, building blocks and believing in yourself. I think that’s what they have got now in the national squad. You could see that in the game on the weekend, Australia have been a top form team and Wales did very well against them.

The 2007 World Cup for us, when we got knocked out of the group stages by Fiji, was a very disappointing time. I was heartbroken and devastated when we lost to Fiji. It wasn’t down to the coaching or anything, but we had to take it on the chin. I was disappointed with what happened with Gareth Jenkins as he was a good friend of mine. When Warren Gatland came in there was only one way we could have gone after that and he got through to the boys with a lot of discipline.

It was in June of 2008 when I was 28 that I moved out to France to play for Brive. The deal put to me was too good to turn down, but the whole experience of playing abroad with my family and children was a life changing experience. My daughters Holly and Isabelle are now fluent in French, so it was a great experience not just on a professional front but on a personal one too.

Obviously when I moved there was a language barrier and the French have got their own way of doing things, but it all worked out in the end. It helped that I was playing some very good rugby out there. Every Monday and Friday the L’Equipe rugby newspaper would come out, and we would always buy it as it would have team of the week in and we wanted to see if we were in it. Most weeks we were in it so it went quite well.

It was a great time over there. It was back to a relegation league, where every game was difficult and you were battling for points whenever you could get them. It was quite strange where they have got a view that they have to win every home game, but away games are not so important. That was very strange for the English speaking folk in the squad to get their heads around. We had to try and change that mentality.

Now I do a small bit of coaching in private schools and camps. It’s for the kids that want to be there and take on things as much as possible. They are like sponges, which is great. I couldn’t do it full time as I like to keep myself busy in lots of different areas. I also worked for an events company, so that’s a different side to rugby.